Art History Lab

The Captivating Journey of Walker Evans: From Literature Lover to Iconic Photographer

Walker Evans: The Early Life and Development of One of America’s Greatest Photographers

Walker Evans is considered one of America’s greatest photographers, known for his candid attitude towards working-class life and American cultural heritage. But what influenced Evans to develop this style?

How did he become such a remarkably talented photographer? In this article, we dive deep into the early life and development of him, examining the people, places, and experiences that shaped his artistic journey.

Section 1: Walker Evans’ Early Life and Influences

Walker Evans’s style of photography was influenced by literature and art. He was a keen reader and especially admired the works of Ernest Hemingway.

Evans’ long-standing relationship with literature informed his artistic style, as seen in his candid attitude towards working-class life and his documentation of American cultural heritage. Evans was deeply fascinated with the art of portraiture, and this fascination led him to begin creating documentation of objects like letterpresses and everyday objects that represented America’s culture and heritage.

Another significant influence on his style was his experience as a graduate student at the Sorbonne in Paris. While in Paris, Evans began to practice his art seriously and was introduced to the work of photographers like Eugne Atget and Berenice Abbott, both of whom played a significant role in shaping his style.

Through his time spent in Paris, he discovered the power of photography to capture everyday life and the beauty of the mundane. Section 2: Evans’ Early Period and Development as a Photographer

Evans was born in 1903 into a wealthy St. Louis family.

He was educated in Chicago, Ohio, and went to Williams College, where he initially pursued a degree in Literature but found himself unable to write after being diagnosed with writer’s block. After living in New York City for a number of years, he returned home to Missouri to work with the Missouri State Highway Department and produce documentary photographs of the state’s rural life.

It was in 1934 when Evans was hired by the Farm Security Administration that his career as a professional photographer took off. The FSA hired photographers to document the lives of American farmers, a project that Evans took on wholeheartedly.

His initial photographs for the FSA were uncharacteristically stylized, influenced by his educational focus on modernist literature. However, he soon realized that the most meaningful photographs came from his specific, candid attitude towards his subjects and their daily lives.

Evans quickly developed a fascination with documenting the working-class life in America, and it was through his photographs that he found a unique perspective within this genre of photography. He took what he learned from his education in literature and applied it to photography, creating images that spoke to the everyday lives of blue-collar workers.

Throughout his career, Evans remained a prolific photographer, and his polaroids and other photographic works are still widely admired for their insight into American life during the 20th century.


Walker Evans’ contribution to photography has been central to the understanding of American culture and working-class life. Through his keen eye and respect for the lives of everyday people, he was able to produce photographs that stood the test of time and were both insightful and captivating.

His journey was shaped by a combination of literary and artistic influences, as well as his own experiences and observations of life in America. The next time you view one of his iconic photographs, remember the person behind the lens and the incredible journey that shaped his remarkable talent.

Walker Evans: The Mature Period and Legacy of One of America’s Most Influential Photographers

In this article, we explore the mature period of Walker Evans’ career, which saw him produce some of his most significant works against the backdrop of the Great Depression. We also examine his personal life and legacy, including the relationships that shaped him, his lasting influence on photography, and his reputation as a contemporary artist.

Section 3: Evans’ Mature Period and Photographing the Great Depression

During the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal, a program designed to restore the country’s economic and social conditions.

The Farm Security Administration (FSA), a government agency tasked with the rehabilitation of rural towns, hired several photographers, including Evans, to document the living conditions of farmers. Evans accepted this opportunity to document poverty in America, which, despite his upbringing in an affluent milieu, he felt an undeniable connection to.

His compelling images of sharecroppers, dust bowl victims, and other struggling Americans characterize his mature period and cemented his reputation as a photographer. Working for the FSA allowed Evans to travel extensively throughout the United States, where he honed his talents as a documentary photographer.

His primary focus was on capturing the lifestyles and struggles of working-class Americans. One notable collaboration was with writer James Agee for Fortune magazine, in which they produced a series of photo-essays that was later published as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.

This book documented the lives of three sharecropper families in rural Alabama and is regarded as one of the most important works of social documentary photography. In the early 1940s, Evans’ interest shifted towards documenting American vernacular architecture, especially gas stations, roadside signs, and other roadside structures.

These photographs reflected his interest in the aesthetic of American culture and helped him develop his own unique photographic style. Evans’ work during this period was recognized by many, and in 1938, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City held a retrospective of his photographs, cementing his place in the art world and leading to further recognition and praise.

Another milestone in his career was his involvement in documenting the New York City subway system. In the late 1930s, Evans was commissioned by The New York Underground to create a photographic series documenting the New York City subway.

His photographs showcase the beauty and the grit of the subway system, capturing the essence of New York City’s most iconic transportation. Section 4: Personal Life and Legacy

Evans was known for his quiet personality and personal relationships.

He was married to Isabelle Storey, a writer, until they divorced in 1945. Despite his personal life being relatively private, he was admired by many authors who shared his interest in American literature and culture, including James Agee and Truman Capote.

In 1960, Evans published his autobiography, “Walker Evans: First and Last,” which provided insight into his life and work as a photographer. It discusses his relationship with Ernest Hemingway and provided new information on his creative process, inspiring young photographers for generations.

Evans’ influence on the world of photography remains profound, and his impact is evident in the works of many contemporary photographers. Students North Callahan, Dorothea Lange, and Robert Frank all admired and were influenced by his works.

His style of photography has also been referred to as postmodern, as his approach and techniques were groundbreaking and innovative. In conclusion, Walker Evans’ mature period marked the zenith of his career as a photographer.

He produced some of the most renowned works in the history of photography, documenting American life during one of the country’s most challenging periods. His influence and legacy have continued to inspire and shape the world of contemporary photography, cementing his reputation as one of America’s most accomplished photographers.

Walker Evans: An Analysis of His Photography and Selected Works

Walker Evans’ body of work is often characterized by its surrealist quality, subverting traditional expectations of photographic representation. In this article, we analyze his photography and examine some of his most notable works, exploring their themes, influence, and significance to photographic history.

Section 5: Analysis of Walker Evans’ Photography

The time in which Evans was working saw two primary photographic ideologies, the documentary-style represented by the FSA, and the pictorialist style, characterized by works that aimed to produce images that attempted to mimic paintings. Evans’ work was a synthesis of these two approaches, bringing the aesthetic of traditional painting and combining it with documentary-style photography.

His work focused on a sort of subtlety and the everyday, celebrating the intrinsic worth of the seemingly mundane and ignored aspects of society, something he found himself interested in after observing the effects of the Great Depression. Many of his photographs address the quandary of classism during his time while simultaneously attempting to capture the society’s essence.

He took an outsider’s view of America and was free to explore and document the country in a way that allowed him to reveal its hidden complexities. Section 6: Selected Photographs by Walker Evans

“Citizen in Downtown Havana, Cuba (1933)” showcases Evans’ exceptional ability to observe and photograph moments of intrigue in everyday life.

The photograph captures a Cuban citizen walking amidst Havana’s coastal life, staring right at the camera with a sense of mystery and open-endedness. The photograph conveys an air of mystery and has an almost film noir quality, evoking questions in the viewer’s mind about the subject and their story.

“Roadside Stand Near Birmingham, Alabama (1936)” touches on the effects of the Great Depression in rural Alabama, with a focus on the political and social commentary that was presented during the age. The photograph features a rustic roadside stand selling tomatoes, oranges, and other produce, and behind it, a bundle of fading signs and a rural church in the background.

The raggedy work clothing of the woman is highlighted, emphasizing the working-class perspective and the political ideology extending further during the era. The Marxist lectern attached to the tree gives a broader perspective on the ideologies present during the era, as Evans chose to emphasize political imagery as a way of highlighting the human experience of the situation.

“Subway Portrait (1941)” showcases Evans’ obsession with the urban environment and ordinary people in it. The photograph features an ordinary individual captured in an intimate moment, forever present through the camera’s lens.

This photograph stands as an intimate connection between the viewer and the environment of the New York City subway, as if we are seeing a moment in the life of an everyday New Yorker. In conclusion, Walker Evans’ photography captures the essence of American society in a way that is both striking and empathetic.

He sought to subvert viewer’s expectations of photographic representation and push the medium’s boundaries while documenting the world around him in innovative ways. His photographs often evoke intrigue and open-endedness, creating a sense of connection between the viewer and the subject.

Evans’ selected works illustrate his ability to capture the essence of a time while remaining relevant through his human understanding of society. Walker Evans: Recommended Reading for a Deeper Understanding of His Work

In addition to appreciating Walker Evans’ iconic photography, delving into the literature associated with his life and art can provide a deeper understanding of his unique perspective.

In this article, we recommend two books that offer valuable insights into Evans’ work and its impact on American culture. Section 7: Recommended Reading

7.1 “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: Three Tenant Families” (2001) by James Agee

Written by James Agee and complemented by Walker Evans’ photographic documentation, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” is a seminal work that chronicles the lives of three sharecropping families in the American South during the 1930s.

Agee’s eloquent prose, combined with Evans’ evocative photographs, provides an intimate and poignant portrait of the hardships faced by these families as they strive to survive in an oppressive system. The book not only sheds light on the daily struggles of sharecroppers but also delves into larger themes of poverty, inequality, and the complexities of American society.

Through Agee’s vivid descriptions and personal reflections, readers gain a deeper understanding of the social and economic conditions that motivated Evans to capture the harsh realities of American life during that time. “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” has long been lauded as a classic in American literature, as it not only captures the essence of the era but also serves as a powerful critique of the social structures that perpetuated poverty and injustice.

Exploring this book provides a crucial context for understanding the motivations behind Evans’ photographic work and the lasting impact of his collaboration with Agee. 7.2 “Many Are Called” (2004) by Walker Evans

“Many Are Called” takes readers on a fascinating journey into the heart of the New York City subway system during the late 1930s.

In this brilliant book, Evans showcases exceptional images captured covertly while riding the subway. These candid portraits offer a glimpse into the lives of diverse individuals traversing the urban environment, providing a poignant reflection of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

Evans’ keen eye and masterful composition are evident in each photograph, revealing the complexities, emotions, and diversity of the city’s inhabitants. Through “Many Are Called,” readers gain a unique perspective on the human experience and the connections we can forge in seemingly mundane environments.

Beyond the stunning visuals, the book also serves as a testament to Evans’ ability to capture the essence of a moment and a place. It highlights his remarkable talent for blending into the surroundings, capturing personal moments without intruding upon the subjects’ privacy.

“Many Are Called” showcases Evans’ unmatched ability to reveal the beauty and significance in seemingly ordinary moments of everyday life. By exploring these recommended reading materials, readers can gain a more comprehensive understanding of Walker Evans’ work.

These books not only provide deeper insights into the motivations and context behind Evans’ photography but also serve as valuable documentation of American history and culture. The combination of literature and visual art allows for a richer exploration of the themes, complexities, and enduring impact of Evans’ work, revealing the power and influence of one of America’s greatest photographers.

(Please note that the publication dates and details provided in this article are accurate at the time of writing, but readers are encouraged to verify them for the most up-to-date information.)

In conclusion, exploring the life and work of Walker Evans provides profound insights into American culture, the Great Depression, and the power of photography. From his early influences to his mature period and collaborations, Evans’ journey shaped his unique style and approach to capturing everyday life.

His photographs, such as “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and “Many Are Called,” continue to resonate and inspire reflection on social and economic conditions. By immersing ourselves in Evans’ work and recommended reading, we can gain a deeper appreciation for his artistry and the lasting impact he has had on photography.

Walker Evans’ legacy serves as a reminder of the power of art to document, illuminate, and create lasting impressions on viewers, even decades later.

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